The ups and downs of trio climbing in Yosemite
By MATT JOHANSON
Blast San Francisco Bureau
As the sun dropped slowly toward the mountain horizon, I thought
of Malaki and Hillary for the first time in ages. We had met years
before while rock climbing at a popular spot near Sonora, Calif., where the
couple irritated my partner and me by hogging our intended route during
their clumsy, unsuccessful effort. But it was the ridiculous adventure
in Yosemite National Park they later described that earned them our deepest contempt.
Malaki, Hillary and a third climber had ventured a few rope
lengths up the base of Yosemite's immense granite monolith, El Capitan,
on a route far exceeding the group's ability. Climbing trios tend to
move slowly, and this one was no exception: When darkness fell, the
three found themselves hanging from a pair of bolts on a 90-degree rock
face, 300 feet off the ground.
Hillary, at this point, came unglued. She refused to rappel or descend
by any other means. Forced to choose between an uncertain descent or the
even more dangerous act of abandoning his girlfriend, Malaki also opted
to stay. The third climber, however, was calm and experienced enough to
rappel one rope length to a small ledge, and then another to the ground,
whereupon he summoned Yosemite's team of rescue climbers to help the
others. Around midnight they reached the pair still dangling from the
bolts, shivering in their shorts and both squeezed into Malaki's
"Those fools," I scoffed. "What were they thinking? No one should
be surprised when the sun goes down!" We resolved never to climb with
them again and stuck by it.
The sun was going down again, and this time the trio consisted of
myself, my buddy Cliff and his father Richard. We were 600 feet off the
ground on a route called "Braille Book," a moderate climb on Yosemite
Valley's Higher Cathedral Rock, and some 300 vertical feet separated us
from the summit -- more than we could possibly cover in the hour of
On our frequent climbs together, Cliff, Richard and I often quote the
melodramatic accounts we've read of ascents by climbers like Ax Nelson
and Warren Harding. To jokingly compare our modest exploits with those
mountaineering legends or climbing movies always produces a laugh. But
shadows stretched across the forest and reached the nearby pinnacles, I
grimly realized that our current effort would be more reminiscent of
Malaki and Hillary's fiasco.
We purposely started late to avoid the brunt of the August heat. The
sun, by early afternoon, passed over Higher Cathedral Rock and left
Braille Book in the shade. So we slept in, began the hike at the crack
of noon and started climbing at 1 p.m.
We took turns leading the lower portions which covered a delightful
variety of climbing challenges. My lead featured a system of vertical
cracks and knobby rock features. Cliff led more crack and face moves,
and Richard tackled a long, frightening "chimney" -- a pair of almost
featureless rock walls facing each other that compel a climber to inch
up them using opposing pressure from extended hands and feet.
However, we moved more slowly than anticipated and darkness was
nearly complete by the time Cliff finished the fifth lead. When Richard
and I had joined him on the small, choppy ledge, thousands of stars had
come into view. Retreating down the route was probably impossible and
certainly not safe, nor was the ledge adequate for an emergency
overnight stop. And the next lead in the dark was sure to be harrowing,
so no one objected when Cliff volunteered. I was, however, tempted to
repeat a line from "The Eiger Sanction," Clint Eastwood's cheesy
climbing thriller: "I think it's important that YOU lead this climb."
Cliff, climbing with a headlamp and no small amount of intestinal
fortitude, followed a finger-crack about 100 feet around and up.
his lead on this circuitous route was no picnic either. "Danger must be
met -- indeed, it must be used," Nelson once wrote. "Only in response to
challenge does a man become his best." Nevertheless, we decided
unanimously against climbing further in the darkness and settled in for
long night on the thorny, slanted ledge we had reached.
Our provisions for the night consisted of a half-quart of water and our
lunch leftovers: some dried apricots, two bagels and four granola bars.
We decided to save them for breakfast instead. Like Nelson decades
before, Cliff remarked, we "understood that we would lose weight on the
We didn't expect anyone to come rescue us, but if someone tried, we had
an answer ready from the annals of Harding. The pioneer of El Capitan
once hurled a soup can from his perch down to rangers who mistakenly
thought he needed their assistance. Inside was Harding's scrawled note:
"A rescue is unwanted, unwarranted and will not be accepted!"
An August night in Yosemite is fairly warm even at 6,000 feet above sea
level, so to our surprise we were able to sleep a few hours clad in
T-shirts and shorts. As the temperature dropped into the low 50s, we
emptied our backpacks of climbing gear and used them with our ropes to
provide some meager insulation.
We got the early start of a lifetime shortly after dawn, finished the
climb and hiked back without incident, and wolfed down a sizable
breakfast in Curry Village by 10 a.m.
As we ate, we debriefed the most memorable Yosemite climb in our
record book. We knocked off a tough, classic route, and while less than
comfortable, our overnight had been entirely safe. "I was keeping score,
and there was not one complaint," Richard said. Good point: Whining
would have made the entire experience immensely more unpleasant. We saw a great sunrise over the high country and even scared off the mice before they ate our breakfast.
And though we may never match the ascents of Harding, Nelson or a
score of others, now we need no longer fear a tirade by T.M. Herbert.
The clown prince of Yosemite climbing in the '60s and '70s, Herbert used to laugh at the park climbers who bivouacked with sleeping bags. A true
"bivy," he said, required a night outdoors without bags or blankets. But
even Herbert may never have spent a night without a jacket, as we did. And thankfully, I didn't have to share a T-shirt with Malaki.